OK, I also had to click on a picture of a boxer with the word “Talmud” in the headline underneath. But when I read the NY Times story about Yuri Foreman, Orthodox rabbinic student and light middleweight pro boxer, what jumped out at me – for its fine surrealistic madness – was the explanation a Yeshiva University Talmud teacher of boxing could be deemed permissible under Jewish law:
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, an assistant professor of the Talmud at Yeshiva University, said Foreman could help fight the belief that Jews were weak or could be bullied.
Lest there be a misunderstanding, I’m not knocking Foreman, an immigrant kid from Belarus who didn’t fit into Israel, chose boxing as a way up, and moved to New York to make it. Lots of Jews chose boxing in the past, for the same reason that blacks have taken up the blood sport: People are willing to pay poor kids to get in a ring and batter each other. The Romans put slaves in the gladiators’ ring. Modern society has more subtle methods.
Rabbi Blech, on the other hand, is a problem – indeed, he is the embodiment of a problem. Not just that he’s ignorant of Jewish boxing’s past. Rather, he’s so convinced that Jews are perceived as weak – which is to say, he so perceives Jews as weak – that he glories in the idea of a Jew going into the ring and womping someone else a sufficient number of times and with sufficient skill that the other guy drops first.
When asked how he would react to the notion of a world champion boxing rabbi, Blech said, “I would be proud.”
Perhaps someone hasn’t mentioned to the good rabbi that actually, well, Jews as a people aren’t so weak; that they have their own country; that said country is reputed to have reasonable armed forces; that as LBJ’s adviser Harry McPherson cabled home after spending the Six-Day War in Israel:
“Incidentally, Israel at war destroys the prototype of the pale, scrawny Jew… the soldiers I saw were tough, muscular, and sunburned.”
Rabbi Blech may also have missed a little slip of the tongue by the prime minister of that country, Ehud Olmert, who classified Israel along with America, France and Russia as nuclear powers. Not that Olmert added to our knowledge, but he made it official.
But whether or not Rabbi Blech knows of Israel’s existence or of what it has in the basement, his comment explains the hawkishness of some American Jews toward Israeli policy: They want Israel to climb in the ring and batter the other guy, in endless instant replay, in order to compensate vicariously and repeatedly for their own sense of weakness. His comment also sheds light on the motives of some rightist rabbis here, who appear more concerned with a sense of Jewish weakness than with the limits that Jewish law would put on behavior toward non-Jews. For them, use of force is less a political means than a psychological need.
Whereas there is no justification whatsoever for the blood sport of boxing, there is good reason for Israel to have an army. There are times when we need to use our army, when no other means are available to protect us. As armies go, ours has been fairly successful in letting our opponents know that we are not weak. As a result, some have chosen to make peace with us, some have chosen the horrific and immoral methods that are the choice of the weak side in modern conflicts, and some are still making up their minds.
For some Jews, however, it is taking time to internalize the change in our image. If they could only accept that “belief that Jews [are] weak or could be bullied” is history, they might feel less need to celebrate pugnaciousness.
As for boxing, Bob Dylan had a clearer understanding of it than Benjamin Blech does.